AC/DC has never made the kind of music that drives eggheads and bookworms to seek out cross-references in their poetry anthologies, but few bands are better at the kind of pulverizing, crude hard rock that these Aussies have been serving up for the last 30+ years. Bon Scott, the group’s original lead singer, was one of the most gifted and charismatic rock singers of the 70’s, but he drank himself to death in February of 1980. The band hardly missed a beat, picking up a brand new belter in Brian Johnson, and releasing Back In Black (itself a tribute to Bon Scott) within a mere few months. It quickly became one of the best-selling albums of all-time, and established them as one of the top draws in rock.
AC/DC is what I think of as a ‘Rorschach Band’. Depending on whose ears you’re listening with, they either sounds dumb, sinister and loud, or… well, they always sound like that, but for a lot of us that’s a great thing. I grew up in Springfield, OR, and in that blue collar neck of the woods listening to AC/DC was as much of a rite of passage into adulthood as sprouting pimples or skipping the junior prom. Of course, our high school parking lot was full of Camaros and El Caminos, and AC/DC’s brand of “high voltage rock and roll” always sounded great pumping out of those muscle cars.
With the recent release of their umpteenth album, Black Ice, I thought it was a good time to take a stroll down memory lane, and review a dozen of their finest tunes. “Are there really a dozen?” the P asked me rhetorically on her way out the door today. Honey, if you ask me, there are at least three dozen, but let’s start with these twelve, from twelve different albums…
The song: ‘T.N.T.’ (from the LP T.N.T.)
What makes it great: Bon Scott compares himself to a stick of dynamite, then lives up to it.
Key lyrics: “So lock up your daughter n’ lock up your wife/Lock up your back door and run for your life”
The song: ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)’ (from the LP High Voltage)
What makes it great: Best… bagpipes… ever. This is also an eye-opening tale of the slime pit that any band has to crawl through to make it big.
Key lyrics: “Getting old, getting grey/Getting ripped off, underpaid/Getting sold, second hand/That’s how it goes playing in a band”
Listen: It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)
The song: ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ (from the LP Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap)
What makes it great: Got a dirty job that needs handling? Bon Scott’s your man. This lurid little song features one of the best of the thousands of insanely catchy guitar riffs that Angus Young has knocked out over the years.
Key lyrics: “For a fee, I’m happy to be/Your back door man”
Listen: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
The song: ‘Let There Be Rock’ (from the LP Let There Be Rock)
What makes it great: Bon Scott rips through this song like he’s reading the lyrics from the holy scriptures of Rock-n-Roll. Hilarious, over-the-top, and absolutely mesmerizing, this powerhouse performance is quintessential Bon.
Key lyrics: “”Let there be light/Sound/Drums/Guitar/Let there be rock”
The song: ‘Sin City’ (from the LP Powerage)
What makes it great: Las Vegas is a place where the party never stops, and this is the perfect soundtrack for it.
Key lyrics: “So, spin that wheel, cut that pack/And roll those loaded dice/Bring on the dancing girls/And put the champaign on ice”
Listen: Sin City
The song: ‘Problem Child’ (from the LP If You Want Blood You’ve Got It)
What makes it great: Recorded live on their 1978 world tour, this is a tantalizing slice of AC/DC’s epic live show. This bruising version surpasses the excellent studio cut that appears on Dirty Deeds.
Key lyrics: “What I want I take/What I don’t I break/And I don’t want you”
The song: ‘Highway To Hell’ (from the LP Highway To Hell)
What makes it great: This ode to the long, hard road of concert touring was generally misunderstood to be some kind of pact-with-Satan thing. Here Bon Scott sounds bone-tired, and he would be dead before AC/DC would complete another album.
Key lyrics: “Hey Satan/Payin’ my dues/Playin’ in a rockin’ band/Hey mumma/Look at me/I’m on the way to the promised land”
Listen: Highway To Hell
The song: ‘Back In Black’ (from the LP Back In Black)
What makes it great: Channeling their grief and cranking the volume to 11, the band soldiered on with new singer Brian Johnson, who sings here like a man shrieking into the void.
Key lyrics: “I’ve been looking at the sky/’Cause it’s gettin’ me high/Forget the hearse ’cause I never die”
Watch: Back In Black
The song: ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)’ (from the LP For Those About To Rock We Salute You)
What makes it great: I played this song on the jukebox at Jack’s Cable Car bar in SF every time I set foot in the place… for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the regulars thought of me as “that AC/DC guy.” The place was full of loonies, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this song was the best thing about that bar.
Key lyrics: “Stand up and be counted/For what you are about to receive”
The song: ‘Who Made Who’ (from the LP Who Made Who)
What makes it great: Created for a forgettable Stephen King movie, this song instantly, and rightly, took its place among their best tunes. It has been a concert staple ever since.
Key lyrics: “Who made who?/Who turned the screw?”
The song: ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ (from the ep ’74 Jailbreak)
What makes it great: ’74 Jailbreak rounds up the songs from the Australian pressings of their first two albums that had been left off the US pressings. This cover of Big Joe Williams’ classic reveals the blues/rock heart that beats within the band’s heavy metal exterior.
Key lyrics: “Baby please don’t go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so/Baby please don’t go”
The song: ‘Live Wire’ (from the box set Bonfire)
What makes it great: Recorded live at Atlantic Studios on December 7th, 1977, this song crackles with the electricity promised in the lyrics. This fully-charged performance was unearthed for the appropriately titled 1997 box set Bonfire.
Key lyrics: “Well if you’re lookin’ for trouble/I’m the man to see/If you’re lookin’ for a-satisfaction/I’m satisfaction guaranteed”
Listen: Live Wire